On Native Ground
A NATION IN NEED OF SOME INSPIRATION
by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
DORCHESTER, Mass. -- Some say the reason so many people watch "The West Wing" is that they want to see - even if it's only in a television drama - a White House with a honest, intelligent and competent president leading an administration that works hard to do the right thing for the nation.
It's a great fantasy to indulge in, especially when we're confronted daily with the reality of a dishonest, unintelligent, incompetent, fraudulently elected usurper and an administration that works hard to do the wrong thing for the nation.
With each passing week, I get more and more discouraged with the direction in which President George W. Bush is taking the nation. In seeking relief from it all, I paid a visit to the John F. Kennedy Museum and Library to remind myself that it wasn't that long ago that we had real presidents in charge of our nation.
In the Massachusetts I grew up in, John F. Kennedy was a revered figure. I was just a toddler when he was killed, but years after his death, I would go into homes where his framed portrait still hung on the wall - especially in the Catholic households. Years later, people still talked ruefully about his all-too-short presidency and would invariably say: "If Jack hadn't been killed, everything would have been different." Contrasted with the presidents that followed him, JFK - or at least the idealized image of him - remains larger than life.
Yes, Kennedy wasn't perfect and the library and museum built in his memory glosses over his personal and political failings. Instead, the library celebrates what it calls "a vision of political action and public service based on courage, excellence, compassion and hope."
The dominant emotion I felt walking through the exhibits was a longing for ideals that are no longer are with us but were recurring themes in Kennedy's time - that public service is a noble thing, that leaders could inspire us to causes larger than ourselves, that our nation must be actively and constructively engaged with the world for its betterment.
The present time is no less difficult than four decades ago when the Soviet Union was still a threat, when African-Americans were still second-class citizens, when our nation was struggling to deal with the challenges of a rapidly changing world. If it has been some time since you have seen and heard all of Kennedy's famed inaugural address, or if you never heard it all, it's worth it to sit down and listen - as I did at the museum - to the words that inspired a generation to service. He may have been talking about the Cold War and the Soviets, but the words apply to our present struggle against the forces of Islamic fanaticism and terror:
"The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought is still at issue around the globe - the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God. ...
"And if a beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion, let both sides join in creating a new endeavor, not a new balance of power, but a new world of law, where the strong are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved. ...
"Now the trumpet summons us again - not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need - not as a call to battle, though embattled we are - but as a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, 'rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation' - a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself. ...
"I do not believe any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light this country and those who serve it - and the glow from that fire can truly light the world."
Americans wanted to hear something like this in the days after Sept. 11. They wanted to hear a call to service and a grand vision of what we were being asked to fight for. We've yet to hear this from President Bush. Consider that we have not fought any major war in the history of our nation without a big tax hike and universal conscription. Instead, Bush is cutting taxes for the wealthy and is content to let those who aren't the fortunate sons and daughters of the privileged bear the burden of the fight.
Kennedy gave a speech to the Massachusetts Legislature a couple of weeks before his Inaugural Address where he laid out the four questions that sum up how those in public service will ultimately be judged by history:
"First, were we truly men of courage - with the courage to stand up to one's enemies - and the courage to stand up, when necessary, to one's own associates - the courage to resist public pressure as well as private greed?
"Secondly, were we truly men of judgment - with perceptive judgment of the future as well as the past - of our own mistakes as well as the mistakes of others - with enough wisdom to know what we did not know, and enough candor to admit it?
"Third, were we truly men of integrity - men who never ran out on either the principles in which we believed or the people who believed in us - men whom neither financial gain nor political ambition could ever divert from the fulfillment of our sacred trust?
"Finally, were we men of dedication - with an honor mortgaged to no single individual or group, and compromised by no private obligation or aim, but devoted solely to serving the public good and the national interest?"
Call me old-fashioned, but I still believe in this standard of successful public service. It is a standard that few of our public, or private, leaders today can meet. But it still is the standard that we should judge them by, and some day, maybe we'll again see a president that can meet that standard.
The last things you see in the museum before you step out into a glass pavilion overlooking Boston Harbor is a videotape of Bill Clinton recounting his 1963 visit to the White House and meeting President Kennedy. While it may seem disconcerting to see and hear Clinton, he speaks with sincerity about how much that brief encounter with Kennedy inspired him to enter public life.
"It's very hard for a people in a democracy to change unless they have confidence in their leaders, confidence in themselves and confidence in their ability to do better," Clinton says on the tape. "He was constantly reaffirming this in a way that was great for this country."
As I left the Kennedy Library on a cloudy June day, I came away with a feeling of melancholy. I do not see anyone that inspires the confidence Clinton spoke of that's so necessary to the health of our nation. The idealism that drove the Kennedy administration was ultimately shattered by assassinations and an immoral war, by a repudiation of the idea of service for the public good and the rise of a culture of greed, cynicism and dishonesty.
In an age of President George W. Bush, we could use a little more President John F. Kennedy.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books).